10 John Mayer-Inspired Blues Licks
Author: Jack Handyside from Pickup Music
For the last 20 years, John Mayer has been a guiding light and modern-day guitar hero for the new generation of guitarists. From his early beginnings as a solo acoustic artist to his more recent trio records, Mayer is one of the most versatile and inventive guitar players around.
Image credits: JD Lasica from Pleasanton, CA, US, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Since the early 2000s, Mayer has cemented himself as a blues-guitar virtuoso and songwriting master. Mayer’s talent seems to know no bounds as he continues to push on with new records that showcase his incredible skill as a player and writer.
Most recently, Mayer has carried the torch for Jerry Garcia with Dead and Co. and takes his solo acoustic stylings to stadiums across the USA.
Take a deep dive with us as we explore 10 John Mayer-inspired licks with blues-guitar aficionado, Seth Rosenbloom.
This article features:
- 10 John Mayer-inspired licks to learn
- Tips on how to sound like Mayer
A rundown of Mayer's gear
10 John Mayer-Inspired Licks
1. Hendrix / SRV Flavor
John Mayer wears his guitar idols on his sleeve. As a huge fan of both Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, it’s easy to spot those influences in Mayer’s phrasing.
Guitar gods Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were more than a couple of blues guitarists. Each brought an aggression and psychedelic element associated with 60s-70s rock.
- This lick is designed to be played with aggression – pick harder and shake the guitar a little for powerful vibrato.
- Using the question-and-answer concept in your solos is a great way to dip into one of Mayer’s most useful tools.
- The waterfall lick at the end of the bar is frequently used by Mayer to round off a lick.
- Mayer likes to use a fuzz pedal to thicken the melody and dive into the psychedelic sound a little more.
Do you ever wish you could just copy and paste a great lick into a new key? You can! They’re called sequences, and Mayer is a big fan of transposing his best ideas using this technique.
Check it out:
Sequences require a strong working knowledge of the major and minor pentatonic scales.
- The trick is being able to visualize the pentatonic scale shapes as you move the lick around.
- Mayer likes to use sequences as a means of taking the same lick and moving it to different parts of the fretboard to highlight each chord in a progression.
3. Even-Bend Phrases
Even bends are a signature Eric Clapton move often employed by Mayer. These kinds of bends merge seamlessly with your pentatonic licks without disturbing the rhythm of the phrase.
Bending is an art form in its own right. Being able to control your bends and add variation like Mr. Mayer is about feeling comfortable with your bending technique.
- Wrapping your thumb around the top of the fretboard will stabilize your hand and allow you to grab the notes more easily.
- Bending takes place in the wrist! Unbeknownst to many, bending is not done exclusively by the fingers.
- Practice bending by twisting your fretting hand wrist upward and watching your fingers naturally bend the string upwards.
- Keep all of your fingers on the same string for extra strength when bending notes – this provides more control over the bend.
Sometimes an idea is so good that you have to hear it twice or three times to really appreciate it.
Repetition is a common device used by lots of blues players to build upon a musical idea. Unsurprisingly, this is a big feature of Mayer’s approach to crafting a solo.
- Repeating phrases offers an opportunity to add little variations to a lick, keeping it fresh and exciting for the listener.
- Much like the question-and-answer device, repetition can be a great way to create a musical conversation.
Want to build intensity in your solo? Use a repeating phrase and slowly increase pick attack or add fuzz, distortion, or any extra tone trickery to take your ideas to the next level.
Is it a coincidence that legato is an anagram of gelato? We don’t think so. Legato technique involves using slides, pull offs, and hammer ons to ‘smoothen the attack the notes you’re playing. Like ice cream, it’s about adding a softer texture to your palette.
Legato creates a seamless transition from note to note and is key to fast playing.
- Legato translates to ‘tied together’ and informs us that each note in a phrase should flow smoothly from one to another.
- A key tip for this is to limit the amount of picking that you’re doing so that notes are generated with your fretting hand instead.
- Slides can take some getting used to, but the key is to keep pressure on your fingers as you move from one note to the next as this will carry the sound forward with momentum.
- Think like a singer! Similar to Derek Trucks, John Mayer likes to use legato technique to imitate the sound of the human voice sliding from one note to the next.
6. Mixing Major and Minor Pentatonic
Strawberries and cream, Batman and Robin, rock and roll. Why are these often paired together? The answer is that their differences complement each other.
The minor and major pentatonic scales are a perfect match for one another when it comes to changing up the vibe in a solo. Mayer is a huge proponent of using both scales in his solos as a way to change the mood.
- The minor pentatonic is a good option to dip into for grittier, sadder-sounding blues licks.
- The major pentatonic is lighter and a little more hopeful.
You can combine both major and minor pentatonic licks to create a more sophisticated question-and-answer section and keep the audience on their feet!
7. Mixing Major and Minor Pentatonic (Part 2)
As we continue to explore more Mayer mysteries, it’s important that we learn to blur the lines between the happier and sadder sounds created using the major and minor pentatonic scales.
- During many of his solos on the song Gravity, Mayer often starts in the major pentatonic world before slowly building intensity and ending with punchy, minor pentatonic licks.
- Intentional bending is a great way to blur the lines between major and minor pentatonic.
- Bending the minor 3rd into the major 3rd is a surefire way of joining both scales together in one lick.
When learning to bend between both scales, it’s crucial that you’re able to visualize both scale positions so that you can see which notes you’re bending into.
8. Slides and Bends
Slides and bends are where you can add some personality to a regular blues lick and make it your own. Every player has their own style, this lick features a few typical ‘Mayerisms’.
Much like playing slide guitar, bends are all about imitating the human voice.
- The human voice is not a fretted instrument, so there are many ‘scoops’ and ‘bends’ that can be heard in any of the great blues and R&B singers of the past.
Blues guitarists can get a lot of new ideas from using vocalists as their inspiration for new licks.
9. Repetition and Resolution
To add another layer of detail to your repetition techniques, we’re going to dive into how Mayer uses lick resolutions to end a phrase.
- Raking is a technique that Mayer uses to add extra, crunchy texture to his licks.
- By raking the pick across muted notes as you approach a fretted note, you can create a more abrasive and percussive element to your playing.
Resolution licks usually appear at the end of repeated phrases and conveniently land on the root note to signal the ‘resolution point’ of the key.
10. SRV Bends
Even the GOAT goes back to the farm eventually, and this final lick is no different. By taking another look at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar influence, we can find another technique that Mayer has incorporated into his playing style.
Overbends were used by Albert King, SRV, and Jimi Hendrix. Make sure you’re using lighter gauged strings as these can feel like a real challenge to bend if you’re on heavier strings.
- By bending up a tone and a half, you can create a reaching sound that Mayer uses to make his licks sound more dramatic.
- These monster bends can be a creative solution to reach notes that are further up the fretboard without you having to move your hand out of position.
Tips on how to sound like Mayer
Now that you’ve got an arsenal of Mayer-isms at your fingertips, the next step is to learn some tips and tricks for recreating Mayer’s iconic playing style.
Study the blues
- John Mayer is very deeply versed in the classic blues records.
- He often cites B.B. King and SRV recordings as being highly influential to his guitar journey.
- We recommend checking out some of his favorites like B.B. King’s Live at the Regal and SRV’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather.
- Much like his musical heroes Hendrix and SRV, Mayer often uses his thumb to play the bass strings while his fingers pick out chords and melodies.
- This is a technique often used by guitarist Charlie Hunter, who is another guitar idol of Mayer’s.
- Mayer will often create grooves by getting rid of the pick and opting for a fingerstyle technique.
Learn to groove by yourself
- In a Berklee clinic from 2008, Mayer talks about the importance of developing a strong rhythmic feel by yourself and the method for practicing it.
- Notice how often Mayer will divide the roles of bass line, chords, and melody/solo to create a super funky solo guitar jam!
Want even more tips on how to capture the perfect John Mayer guitar tone? Check out this article on achieving an iconic blues tone.
For most of his career, John Mayer has been a huge fan of Martin acoustic guitars and a range of different Fender Stratocasters – his most recognizable guitar being a roadworn, black Fender Strat nicknamed ‘BLK1’.
In the past decade, Mayer has switched up his guitar game and largely left the Fender brand behind.
- He now favors the PRS Silver Sky, Dusenbergs, Gibsons, and other boutique guitar brands.
- According to stringmaker Ernie Ball, Mayer uses 10-46 gauge regular slinky strings on his electric guitars.
Here’s a short list of Mayer’s most utilized guitars:
- Fender Stratocaster Custom Shop
- 1996 Fender Stratocaster Stevie Ray Vaughan signature
- 2016 PRS Super Eagle
- PRS John Mayer Silver Sky
- 2022 PRS SE Silver Sky
- 2005 Gibson ES-335
- Guild Starfire IV ST
- Dusenberg Double Cat
- Alembic Further Jerry Garcia Tribute
Mayer’s amplifiers are well documented and he has been known to use:
- Two Rock Custom Reverb
- Ceriatone Overtone Special
- Fender Vibrolux
- Fender Super Reverb
- Fender Blues Junior
Mayer mostly uses dumble-style amplifiers and Two Rock models to capture his iconic clean sound. However, if you’re unable to get one of the 300 Dumble amplifiers in existence, Fender amplifiers offer a close alternative to help you get that super clean, well-rounded sound that Mayer is known for.
At one point in his live rig, John Mayer was known to operate two monster pedal boards at the same time! However, it is unlikely that you have a team of roadies on hand to take care of all your gear requirements.
Here are some pedal suggestions to help you capture Mayer’s sound:
Overdrive and boost pedals:
- Ibanez Ts-808, Ts-9
- Fulltone Fulldrive 2
- Marshall BluesBreaker
- Klon Centaur Professional Overdrive
- Keeley Katana boost
Delay and Reverb:
- Way Huge Aqua Puss
- Eventide Timefactor
- T-Rex Replica Delay
- Electro-Harmonix QTron
- Electro-Harmonix POG2
- Real McCoy Custom RMC8
- Boss RT-20 Rotary Speaker Simulator